For Daniel & Delfi

February 2016.

Cruise through the cradle of evolution

Dear Daniel,

The Galapagos is truly a wonder. Viewing the archipelago from the sky as you descend into Santa Cruz, the entire Galapagos looks like one giant living organism with most of its body submerged beneath the tides. As you told me recently, this won’t be your first jaunt into a national park. However, it will be a profoundly new experience for you: not only are Galapagos species different from any you’ve encountered, but the sheer amount of them in this relatively small space is breathtaking.

The isles are literally teeming with life and as you walk amongst the lounging seals, the mating birds, and sun-soaked iguanas, you will wonder whether life on earth was supposed to look like this. I know I did. Your timing is perfect, as February is mating season for many of the animals: by far the best time to see them. Although your days will be full of activities, I’m sure you will notice how calming the archipelago can be. Its many inhabitants are a relaxed sort, and this attitude is infectious.

Day 1: Preservation and embarkation

The day you spend in Santa Cruz will be the last you see of “civilization” for the duration of the trip. Puerto Ayora, the town on the island, houses the most humans in the Galapagos, with a population of approximately 12,000. Puerto Ayora is the epicenter of the Galápagos administration as well as being home to the Charles Darwin Research Center where you will learn about their vital preservation work and how delicate the island’s ecosystem really is.

Later you will head up into the highlands to roam the moss-draped lush landscape known for its exuberant flora and ancient tunnels formed by lava. Don’t be surprised if you come across wild giant tortoises and land iguanas as they often forage in the highlands. If you’re both interested in further exploration Black Turtle Cove is home to a small forest of mangrove trees where one can sometimes watch sea turtles, rays, and small sharks mating off the shore.

In the evening, you will embark from Puerto Ayora onto your cruise ship the Isabela. Captain George will greet you as you board—you will enjoy getting to know this jovial man, who will navigate you around the Galapagos this week. Next, find your private room for two and, if so inclined, roam the three decks, meet your fellow 38 passengers, or take in a meal in the dining room. After your days in the sun, the Isabela will serve as the perfect haven for the two of you.

Day 2: Lions, lizards, and boobies

Bright and early, you will arrive off the coast of Gardner Bay at Hood Island. The island, named after Viscount Samuel Hood, an 18th century British Admiral, is considered one of the oldest islands in the archipelago, dating about 4 million years. Your guide Joao will meet you at this first stop, and will mention this and much more as you traverse the isle. Gardner bay and the small islets surrounding it will be your first stop. You will have hours to play with the abundant Galapagos sea lions and when they’re tired, they might show you how to properly sunbathe on the soft sand.

In the afternoon you will sail to Hood’s other end to visit Punta Suarez, which the lava lizard and waved albatross call home. This island is unique in that its steep cliffs are the perfect home for two such diverse species. Before the night is done you will see nearly every blue-footed booby in the world, as almost their entire population comes to this island to breed and attract a mate.

Day 3: Letters to Floreana

In the morning you will arrive on the east coast of Floreana Island, the entirety of which was formed by a volcanic eruption. Sailing up to the island you will see the volcanoes peak and the island’s highest point, Cerro Pajas. From afar, all of Floreana looks like the roots, as if Cerro Pajas was one giant tree.

The east coast of Floreana is home to many a dive and snorkel site. Champion Islet, just off the eastern shore, nurtures large colonies of sea lions, sea turtles, and sharks. Further up the shore is the “Devil’s Crown,” an underwater volcanic cone where you can see abundant schools of fish swimming amongst the equally abundant coral. Life thrives both above and below the tides in the Galapagos.

Later on in the day, you will hike through the island. On these adventures, you may find flamingos, pintail ducks, and various shorebirds. You will end up in Post Office Bay, a landmark with one of the islands’ more interesting histories. Due to the relatively flat surfaces, supply of fresh water, plants and animals, Floreana was a popular stop among whalers. You will be able to see the wooden barrel that the whalers on the beach as a post office so that passing ships could deliver the mail on their way home. Feel free to drop a letter in.

Day 4: The Western Isles

This morning you will arrive at Isabela, the largest Galapagos island and home to more wild tortoises than any other. The island was formed by six major shield volcanos, five of which are still active, making this island one of the most volcanically active places on earth.

First, you will stop at Punta Vicente Roca for snorkeling and panga riding. These adventures will take you through the mostly submerged caves, where you can search the waters for dolphins, whales, sea turtles and the elusive ocean sunfish – the mola-mola.

Later, you will anchor off the Caribbean-like port of Puerto Villamil, where you will ingest an exceptional seafood lunch. Such exquisitely fresh are is the only option in the Galapagos. Walk the streets of this small town, visit the nearby saltwater lagoons, home to flamingos, or simply stroll along the beach. At the end of the boardwalk is the tortoise breeding center which is jointly administered by the Galápagos National park and the Charles Darwin Research Station.

In the evening, you will depart Isabela and head to the nearby Fernandina island, youngest of the Galapagos. Due to the island’s very active volcano, you will be staying by the Punta Espinoza shoreline. With Isabela’s volcanoes as a dramatic backdrop, you will see penguins, pelicans, the famous flightless cormorant, and literally countless marine iguanas who keep warm on the black lava rocks. Also noticeable are the two types of lava flows that can be seen all over the island, making the rocks look like petrified streams.

Day 5: Fur seals and penguins 

On this beautiful morning, you will arrive on Santiago Island’s Puerto Egas shore. Marine iguanas bask along the lava-eroded shoreline and Sally Lightfoot crabs walk along the bottom of dozens of tidepools. Where the crabs are found, their natural predators are never far. Following the trail of crabs, you will find the Galapagos fur seals where you will have to time to snorkel and dive among them.

Later, you will head to Sullivan’s Bay on the opposite side of the isle. I know you told me your partner is interested in geology and volcanology. If she hasn’t fulfilled her desire to observe rocks and explosions, you both will have the option to walk over the uneroded black lava flow, covered with lava bubbles and tree trunk molds.

Just across the bay is Bartolome, the island where you will be spending your afternoon. On Bartolome lava, mangroves, and golden sand converge to create one of the Galapagos’ most striking landscapes. The island consists of an extinct volcano causing a variety of green, red-orange, and black lava forms across the island. After strolling the .5 square mile island, you will head to Pinnacle Rock where along the shore you can swim with marine turtles, white-tipped reef sharks, and the Galapagos penguin.

The penguins may come as a surprise—however, only 5 of the world’s 17 penguin species live in Antarctica, while the rest live in warm weather. Make sure to duck into the cave behind Pinnacle Rock, which houses a breeding colony.

Day 6: The Prince’s Steps

Named after the Italian city of Genoa in honor of Christopher Columbus, the island of Genovesa will greet you as you disembark in the early morning. The island’s immense diversity of birds is among the best in the archipelago, and includes red-footed boobies, swallow-tailed gulls, storms petrels, and Darwin’s finches. Your first excursion of the day will be hiking the Prince Philip’s Steps, an extraordinarily steep path ascending 82 feet up the edge of a cliff. Many colonies of diverse birds will dot your path all the way to the top.

Genovesa is a horseshoe-shaped island containing the Great Darwin Bay. You spend your afternoon on its shores. The bay offers a small, secluded beach and great diving while surrounded by tiny marine iguana, the smallest in the archipelago. If you are feeling adventurous, you could also try diving from the outside of the volcano, through the channel into the caldera.

Day 7: Dances with birds

You will arrive on North Seymour island in the morning, where you will be spending the rest of the day. Begin with a hike of the 1.2-mile trail that traverses through the island’s center and along some of its rocky coast. This small island was created by seismic uplift as opposed to volcanic activity, which created the other islands. This gives Seymour a flat profile with cliffs only meters from the shore. On your trail, I’m sure you will see many splendid birds, as Seymour’s geography makes it one of the best places in the world for breeding birds.

Watching their relationships in the sky is quite remarkable, as boobies are excellent hunters and fish cooperatively in flocks. The frigates offer stark contrast, as they are pirates and will dive bomb the boobies forcing them to drop their prey. The frigate then swoops down to catch the fish before it hits water. One can watch this dance in the sky while standing amongst forests of ghostly palo santos trees, as Seymour is covered in them—indeed, it is a whole island of pale, spectral trees, endlessly waiting to bloom.

Day 8: Disembark

In the morning, you will arrive at Baltra Island for your disembarkation and the beginning of your journey home.

Daniel, crafting this itinerary for the two of you was a joy. Please do call if I can be of any help.